Urgent Matters

Interalia solution might be the aspirin for a giant 911 sector headache

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Solutions that filter out unintended 911 calls from wireless handsets--the so-called "butt dials"--can save significant time for telecommunicators that can be spent answering legitimate emergency calls.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted a video in which Mark Spross, communications manager for the Clackamas County (Ore.) Department of Communications, talked about a solution his center has deployed that filters out unintended 911 calls made from wireless handsets —the so-called “butt dials,” which plague public-safety answering points (PSAPs) from coast to coast.

That posting elicited an e-mail from Larry Hatch, assistant director of Washington County (Ore.) 911, who wrote that his county has used the same solution—the XMU+, which is produced by Calgary, Alberta-based Interalia—for the last five years. Hatch said that two other counties in the state deploy the solution—Land, in which the city of Eugene is located and Multnomah, in which the city of Portland is located. He claimed that the solution intercepts one-third of the wireless 911 calls made to his PSAP, having deemed them to be unintended.

“These are calls that the person on the other end has no idea that their call [were placed to] the 911 center. … You can hear people singing along with their radios, taking groceries out of shopping bags or talking with their kids,” Hatch said.

In the past, the big problem was cellular phones that had exposed keypads, according to Hatch. The “9” key was programmed to automatically dial 911 if it were depressed and held for a few seconds. It’s easy to imagine just how easy it was to make an unintended emergency call, especially when one slipped the phone into a back pocket. When flip phones hit the marketplace, Hatch thought the problem naturally would be solved. Think again. For reasons that he can’t explain, unintended calls continued to represent about one-third of all 911 calls fielded by his PSAP.

Somehow, Hatch learned of Interalia’s solution, which was being used in Reno, Nev. The solution doesn’t bother with trying to discern whether the call is intelligible; rather, it measures the amount of noise that’s on the line, according to Sebastien Di Meglio, Interalia’s global sales manager.

“When you talk into your phone, your voice is converted into current, and we pick up that current,” Di Meglio said. “It works like a voltmeter. Remember when we were kids, and we were recording tapes? If we spoke too loud, the needle would move into the red zone. With our solution, if the call is loud enough, it gets connected—if it isn’t, it doesn’t.”  Di Meglio added that the solution is configurable, so each agency can set the threshold for when a call gets connected.

When a call’s loudness falls below the threshold, the caller receives a message that instructs him to speak or press any key on the phone if he truly is experiencing an emergency. The message is then repeated in Spanish. If no response is received, the system automatically disconnects the call, without any involvement of a telecommunicator.

Hatch said that his agency sets the sensitivity low to guard against accidentally missing a legitimate emergency call. He further called the decision to deploy the solution a “no-brainer.” He estimated that that average 911 call fielded by his center lasts 1:15 and said that the solution blocked about 25,000 unintended 911 calls in the first six months of this year. Do the math, and you’ll find that the Interalia solution saved Washington County 911 more than 500 telecommunicator hours just in the first half of 2013. Now think about New York City, which receives about 4 million unintended 911 calls annually, according to Di Meglio. No brainer, indeed.

Interestingly, Di Meglio said that there wasn’t a lot of uptake when the company first introduced the solution. This was, in part, because agencies were afraid that they might unwittingly miss a legit 911 call, with tragic consequences, and/or they didn’t understand how the technology worked. But now, interest is picking up.

“A lot more people are using cell phones, so we’re seeing a resurgence, and we’re going to put the appropriate resources to it,” Di Meglio said.

Pardon the pun, but unintended 911 calls are a giant pain in the butt for every PSAP. In an era of diminished resources, when many centers are struggling just to keep up with legitimate emergency calls, this seems like a solution that definitely is worth a look.

Discuss this Blog Entry 7

on Sep 12, 2013

May 9-1-1 calls should be accompanied by a photo taken when the call was dialed. It would be easy to tell which are butt dialed. Just say'n

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 13, 2013

It is difficult enough right now to get a text message to 9-1-1 centers let alone a photo via message over 9-1-1. I know phone companies are working on it and hopefully have something soon, but this kind of a "catch all" solution is a potential lawsuit, not to mention possible loss of life

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 13, 2013

what about the kidnapped victim who can dial 911, but can't say anything because the kidnapper would overhear. The call can still be monitored to hear anything said, and track the location of the phone.

Sebastien Di Meglio (not verified)
on Nov 1, 2013

The caller can press any key on the phone and the call will be transfer to a 911 agent.

Bob (not verified)
on Sep 13, 2013

My concern here would be those who are calling 911 but can't speak either due to a medical issue or just being silent because of a dangerous situation.

We often tell those who may be confronted with a dangerous situation that even if they can't speak, dial 911 and we'll start looking for you.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2014

So, all those pocket dials have the potential of being that dangeraous situation you are speaking of. Are you telling me 911 should "start looking" for all those who "can't speak" which is EVERY pocket dial we get?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 6, 2014

Children are typically trained by parents to call 9-1-1 when the parent needs assistance. Example 1: A child dials the 9-1-1 number on the phone, then lays the phone down to attend to the parent. Example 2: An Assistance Dog dials 9-1-1, then attends to the owner.

As a 9-1-1 professional of 10-years myself, this is once again a case where the 9-1-1 Management is too Out-Of-Touch of the Realities of the Real World and is too focused on the Money involved in having a Real Person answer every 9-1-1 call. In the United States of America we should demand better of our government officials. A real human being, not a machine, should decide when to terminate a 9-1-1 call.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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